Marek Rowinski, hardcore freestyle fan
The absence of new, young freestyle talent and the uncomfortable itchiness that comes on when other people are kiting and you're not; both topics covered in Mark Shinn’s 89th Kiteworld column this issue!
WORDS: Mark Shinn PHOTOS: Robert Hajduk / Shinn
The world might have had a turbulent period of late but I think it’s safe to say things are on some kind of a road to recovery. It’s 6am and I’m sat in the van by the side of Lake Neusiedl am See in Austria. There are around 50 windsurfers, a similar number of kiters and a splattering of wingers out already enjoying the early 20 knot breeze. (By the way, this is no reflection on the state of winging, but rather an indication that an exceptionally low water level in the lake makes foiling impossible on anything bigger than a 40cm mast). The Surf Games event is vibrant with activity compared to the same time last year, when exhibitors sadly out numbered visitors. I’m just back from spending two weeks on a kite safari in Egypt, something that was also next to impossible a year ago. I made my first safari back in 2004 and have been a fairly regular attendee ever since.
Life is so full of distractions. Even the precious time at the beach is interrupted by calls, mails and messages, so jumping on a boat and sailing off into the sunset with a group of friends, knowing that for the next days the only things to worry about are kiting, eating and sleeping is something to be savoured. Life turns around the sun instead of the clock. 5.30am sunrise sessions become the norm (and without effort) because the previous evening’s sunset session signalled the last efforts of the day. When darkness takes over, sleep becomes a welcome priority to be ready for the next morning. As the world of travel opens up again, I recommend booking some kite therapy for the soul, if you can!
Phones off, guns out
In truth, we were in Egypt to shoot our upcoming range rather than taking a vacation, but it would be hard to call it real work. The lack of internet also gave more chance to chat with our team riders on a deeper, more personal level. One of the topics that came up was the development of freestyle (or rather the lack of development). While most elements of the competition kiteboarding world seems to be stuttering back to life, freestyle seems to be lagging. The few events that have happened have seen average attendance at best, as well as a notable lack of new talent. Young riders are the life-blood of sport and in this case they seem frighteningly scarce.
To be fair, freestyle is the longest standing and most commercialised aspect of competitive kiteboarding. In the beginning freestyle was the only competitive option; now we have big air, strapless freestyle, wave riding and, of course, racing (which is now Olympic). The status of freestyle events can make them the most expensive to run (internationally). The GKA has a minimum prize fund, the riders expect subsidised accommodation during the event and there is requirement for a live stream. Popularity of the discipline aside, in these Covid dominated times it’s hard, if not impossible, for event organisers to secure the funding needed to reach this level of event, but that doesn’t touch on the subject of where all the young, up and coming freestyle riders are?
It’s either nearly bed- or almost breakfast-time. Either way, there’s a kite session to prepare for!
My suspicion is that the progression of big air riding has been a major factor with the lure of the Big Air Kiteboarding League and King of the Air being stronger than competition freestyle. The highest level big air riders will tell you the discipline requires equal amounts of skill and training as freestyle, however for the up and coming rider the path to the top appears to be shorter. If there is one thing we know, it’s that sports requiring years of dedication and training to reach the top level have declined in mass talent pools over the last 20 years. No matter my appreciation of big air, I do suspect it’s future will go exactly the same way as freestyle. The tricks will become more complicated and take longer (and inflict more pain) to learn, the conditions needed to ride at the highest level will become even more specialised than they are now (we are already seeing that there are only a handful of spots around the world that provide significantly challenging big air conditions), so there is a pattern here and it doesn’t add up to sustainable growth.
“There is of course another major draw for young kiteboarders:
Kite foil racing is dynamic, fast, technical and draws the financial backing that only Gold medals can bring. The youth fleet at major regattas is as big or bigger than the open fleet – so, if you ask me, there is no doubt that racing has drained a certain amount of the talent pool that would previously have entered the expression sports arena. Do I sound overly negative? I hope not, because I don’t mean to be. Reality and history both point to the fact that sports are a living, progressing ‘thing’. Despite the best efforts of the brands involved and the governing bodies, the riders always lead the way and while freestyle or big air might become a little marginalised, it just means there is something new on the way. The sport will develop or die and, if I look out the van window right now (or think back to the number of fully booked kite safari boats that I saw last week), I can see that the sport is in no danger of dying at all. The future is bright, it’s just hard to say which part of the future is the brightest. Okay, enough of this. I’ve sat here long enough and it’s time to get wet myself. 22 years into my kiteboarding career and I still get nervous watching others ride and being stuck on the land myself!